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The concept of “decent work” is an important one: it is the framework that countries worldwide use to develop initiatives, programs and policies that improve working conditions for everyone. It’s also used as a framework to evaluate how countries perform as they advance principles of decent work.
It’s different from the idea of a “good job,” another term we explored recently—and it’s a critical concept to understand because it underpins the well-being of Canada’s economy, society and labour market.
In this article, we break down the concept of decent work: What is it? Why does it matter? How is Canada making progress toward principles of decent work?
What is decent work?
The concept of decent work was introduced in 1999 at the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference, where it was defined as providing "opportunities for men and women to access decent and productive employment characterized by freedom, equity, security, and human dignity.”
Today, decent work serves as the guiding framework for ILO activities. Decent work principles assert that employment should not merely provide a livelihood, but enable individuals to make full use of their skills to contribute to the common well-being.
The concept extends across both formal and informal work sectors, grounded in the recognition that business is an integral part of society, not separate from it. This thinking represents a shift toward prioritizing the quality of work life, and it emphasizes that decent work is not simply a matter of social justice, but a critical contributor to social and economic development.
By establishing labour standards and fostering social dialogue, decent work catalyzes development processes, promoting more robust governance and social development standards.
In general, work is considered decent when rights, representation and protection accompany it, and it:
The UN General Assembly adopts “decent work” as a Global Goal
In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly united 193 countries in adopting the 2030 Development Agenda—a milestone in international cooperation.
At its core, this agenda comprises the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or “Global Goals”), which are woven together as a comprehensive framework aimed at fostering “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”
The Global Goals are intended as a solution to the challenges posed by looming environmental crises and poverty. They aim to address the social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century by embarking on a global partnership designed to tackle these dimensions of sustainability simultaneously.
The concept of decent work is embedded in SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
This goal recognizes that decent work and economic growth are essential elements for the sustainable development of countries. It underscores the links between decent work and economic growth:1 that is, decent work is the basis for the well-being of families and the success and potential of all workers, collectively and as individuals. It is critical to achieving a high quality of life and social development standards.2
Canada has been at the forefront of championing decent work
Canada has implemented several initiatives and policies to foster decent work, align with the SDGs, and ensure sustainable economic growth.
Federal initiatives that advance principles of decent work
Initiatives the Government of Canada has introduced to advance principles of decent work across the country include:
Through bilateral labour market transfer agreements, such as the Labour Market Development Agreements and the Workforce Development Agreements, the Canadian government invests more than $3 billion annually in skills training and employment support. Further, programs such as the Jobs and Growth Fund and the Accelerated Growth Service strengthen the government's commitment to creating high-quality employment opportunities.
Canada is also mindful of the impacts of technology, climate change and demographic shifts on its labour market. Initiatives such as Skills Boost help employed and unemployed Canadians enhance their skills to meet future labour market demands. Similarly, the Skills for Success program emphasizes foundational and transferable skills, especially for newcomers, racialized Canadians, individuals with disabilities, and Indigenous communities
In addition, Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy is designed to assist young Canadians in acquiring work experience and skills, particularly those who face employment barriers. Inclusive approaches are extended to Indigenous communities through the Skills and Partnership Fund, and the Indigenous Skills and Employment Training Program is designed to provide culturally appropriate job training and build capacity.
The Disability Inclusion Action Plan of Canada outlines the development of a Canadians with Disabilities Employment Strategy to address workplace barriers.
A task force on Women in the Economy aims to steer a feminist and inclusive economic recovery.
Canada has also updated its labour code to improve private sector labour standards. It passed Bill C-65 to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act to protect federal employees from harassment and violence.
Legal frameworks that advance principles of decent work in Canada
On the legislative front, the Pay Equity Act went into effect on August 31, 2021, mandating proactive pay equity for federally regulated employees to reduce gender pay gaps. In addition, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Employment Equity Act, and the Federal Contractors Program form a legal framework for preventing employment discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity and more. These tools cover a wide range of situations and help ensure fairness and equality for workers.
Notably, the Canada Labour Code addresses the rights and obligations of employers and employees. Federal labour and employment laws also protect foreign workers' rights in Canada. Pursuing a more inclusive definition of decent work that incorporates career advancement is essential.
The Canadian government's decision to establish a national, affordable childcare system is also a monumental step in promoting decent work. The pandemic revealed the difficulties that many families have when it comes to balancing work and childcare, resulting in historic lows in workforce participation by women. This new initiative, developed in collaboration with provincial governments, is a boon for the economy, not just for working parents. The decades-long efforts of unions and activists are finally paying off, paving the way for a more inclusive workforce.
There are collective benefits for society when individuals possess the necessary skills and are given the opportunities to participate in meaningful employment and to contribute to developing a sustainable future. Employers in Canada have a substantial responsibility in this regard.
How Canada assesses progress toward achieving principles of decent work
Statistics Canada has identified several indicators to evaluate decent work, including the annual growth rate of real GDP per employed person, the proportion of informal employment, average hourly earnings, and youth unemployment or underemployment rates. These indicators aid in monitoring progress and identifying improvement opportunities:
- annual growth rate of real GDP per employed person
- proportion of informal employment by sector and sex3
- average hourly earnings of employees by sex, age, occupation and persons with disabilities
- proportion of youth (aged 15 to 24 years) not in education, employment or training
- proxy indicator4 for several fatalities and lost time claim (which includes two sub-indicators related to the number of fatalities and lost time claims, categorized by sex)
The way forward
Despite these initiatives and frameworks for decent work, many Canadians are still left behind.
The pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of low-income and frontline workers, who frequently lack benefits, such as paid sick leave. For example, research on restaurant work conditions indicates that long hours and unpredictable schedules make balancing work and personal obligations difficult.
According to a study conducted by Statistics Canada, hospitality workers are employed in substandard conditions. Gig workers also face declining labour standards and pay due to the nature of their work.
Black Canadians are overrepresented in precarious, temporary and low-paying positions and underrepresented in high-paying managerial jobs. Recent research indicates that one in two Black employees in Canada has experienced racial discrimination in the workplace, and 96% of Black Canadians report racism as a problem in the workplace, while 78% consider workplace racism to be a severe problem. Meanwhile, 56% of white participants view workplace racism as either a minor or nonexistent issue. These contrasting perspectives illustrate a case of economic marginalization reinforcing low-wage precarious work at the expense of marginalized communities.
It is critical for Canada to expand programs, initiatives and policies that help us progress toward the principles of decent work for all Canadians, but particularly for under-represented groups.
1 Idowu, S. O., Capaldi, N., Zu, L., & Gupta, A. D. (Eds.). (2013). Encyclopedia of corporate social responsibility (Vol. 21). Berlin: Springer.
2 Kolot, A., Kozmenko, S., Herasymenko, O., & Štreimikienė, D. (2020). Development of a decent work institute as a social quality imperative: Lessons for Ukraine. Economics & Sociology, 13(2), 70-85.
3 The objective of this study was to analyze the proportion of informal employment in relation to total employment, with a specific focus on differentiation by sector and gender.
4 Fatal and non-fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers, by sex and migrant status.
Kashyap contributes to multiple labour market-related projects, including identifying links between education systems and LMI, tracking green economy jobs, and assessing provincial and territorial responses to labour and skills shortages.
Dr. Suzanne Spiteri is a sociologist with several years of experience in both qualitative and mixed-methods data analysis. She leads labour-related projects that explore labour market tightness and the labour market outcomes of under-represented groups.